by Stuart Dagger
The American system for choosing Presidential candidates is one of those things that now works only in theory. How else can you explain how a free nation of 200 million people has come down to a choice between Bush and Clinton? How else can you explain Dan Quayle, the least mentally gifted political leader since the Bourbons and the Hapsburgs gave up in-breeding? Nonetheless, the mechanics of the process are fascinating, and this year they have provided the basis for two interesting games, Candidate from Avalon Hill and Road to the White House from Mayfair.
Candidate is based on the premise that all that matters in the race for selection is money, endorsements and the ability to sling mud. A cynical view, but one which, from over here, looks to be fair. Avalon Hill claim that the game is for 2-6 players. I'd be surprised if it worked with two, but Mike has played and enjoyed the game with three, and my games have been with five and six. So it certainly has a welcomely wide range. Playing time depends on the number of players: Mike's 3-player games have been taking rather less than two hours; my 5-6 ones just over three.
For your money you get a board, which acts mainly as an information display telling players which states are still up for grabs and reminding me where Indiana is, some counters and a deck of cards. It is the cards that form the core of the game system. They come in four flavours - money, endorsements, rumours and problems. Endorsements translate into money, though of a slightly less secure sort than the basic stuff, and rumours are equivalent to negative money and as such are used to damage an opponent's campaign. The problem cards add some tactical spice and introduce a vital element of bluff and uncertainty into what would otherwise be fairly routine and repetitive play.
The states are divided up into 23 'primaries', each consisting of one, two or three states, and in each round the current dealer nominates the primary that is to be contested. The states in the primary are contested separately, and a player wishing to contest any or all of them does so by playing cards - up to one money card, any number of endorsements and 'squelch rumours', and up to one problem card. He may also play cards on to the piles of his opponents. Obviously these will usually be detrimental, but they don't have to be. If you wish to boost the chances of one rival against another whom you see as a bigger threat, you may. All these cards are played face down, with the dealer going last. The cards are then turned face up, and the state goes to the player with the highest total, provided this is positive and provided no problem cards have been played to disrupt things.
There are four types of problem cards: one cancels endorsements; one produces, in the absence of 'scandal' or 'deadlock', an automatic win for a favourite son; 'scandal', which results in all cards played so far in the state being discarded, leaving the contestants to recampaign with those left in their hands; and 'deadlock', which puts the state result on ice until the convention. You are not obliged to campaign in a primary. Instead you have the option of 'laying groundwork' in one of those still to be contested. You do this, needless to say, by spending money. When the relevant primary comes round later, if you are the player who has spent most on groundwork in this primary, you get to draw cards from the other players, which will usually give you an advantage in the campaign. The more players there are, the bigger this advantage is likely to be and the more important groundwork becomes. Two bits of chrome round out the game system - a bandwagon effect and a Super Tuesday option, both of which work well. There is nothing very original here, but is has all been very well crafted and produces very entertaining play. We enjoyed our first game very much indeed.
We enjoyed our second game a lot less, and the reason was that by then we had realised that all this enjoyable jockeying for position had very little to do with the way the game is won. Each state carries points equal to its votes in the Electoral College, from 54 for California down to 3 for the likes of Hawaii and Delaware. There are 538 points in all, and you need an absolute majority to win. It is unlikely that anyone will have accumulated the necessary 270 by the time all the primaries have been resolved, and so at that point you 'go to the convention'. Here the players first campaign for the hitherto deadlocked states, and then they go into a devil-take-the-hindmost routine. As each player drops out, his votes are campaigned for as a single block, using the same sort of card play as before, and this continues until someone crosses the line. So the winning and losing of the game is all down to whether or not you hold good cards in these last few rounds of campaigning, and that can't be planned for.
All the previous part of the game has achieved is to determine who drops out first, which leaves you wondering why you spent so long over it. The designer and developer claim that Candidate is a game in which the result stays in doubt until the end, and of course they are right. However, you could make the same claim for the 18xx railway games if you introduced a rule which said that when the bank runs out of money everybody rolls a die and whoever rolls the highest is credited with an extra £3,000. For me, the endgame of Candidate tips the luck/skill balance too much in favour of luck and in the process obliterates the subtleties that are present earlier on in the game. It is a matter of taste of course, but the rest of my lot are in agreement, and it is unlikely that I shall be able to persuade them to play the game again unless one of us can come up with a more satisfactory resolution. Fortunately, I think that the next game has one that could be adapted to fit quite easily.
Mayfair's Road to the White House is built round a 20 turn campaign season, during which the candidates stump round the States garnering support. In doing this they will build on their regional strengths and will try to get 'their issues' on to the agenda so as to increase the effectiveness of their campaigning and to provide opportunities for scoring off their rivals. At the end of the twenty turns each state is counted, with points equal to the Electoral College vote going to the most popular candidate. As in Candidate, the aim is to get an overall majority, 270 points. The game is for 3-6 players, but the rule book reckons that it is a bit thin with 3. However, to compensate for this, the game comes with a 'Presidential Campaign' variant which is specifically for 2-3 players. In this each player runs a President/Vice President ticket, thereby getting the necessary extra pieces on to the board. The official version of this variant is decked out with a lot of Democrat/Republican/Third Party chrome, but this is clearly optional, and, for non-Americans at least, I reckon that the variant would be better without it. With five players and the full twenty turns the game takes three and a half to four hours, even if you are playing briskly, but you can cut this down without any great loss of effectiveness by simply reducing the number of turns.
Each player is assigned a candidate. 26 of these come with the game, and should you wish to create more, there is a section in the rules which explains how. The candidates supplied have been put together with wit and insight and add quite a bit to the pleasure of the game. It is much more fun to be Governor Billy Joe Saltine of Georgia, a blue collar conservative, or the charismatic Boomer Littlefeet, former quarterback of the Denver Broncos, than it is just to be red or green. In my first game I drew Senator Red Knech, an old-style Southern bigot. With views that were strongly anti-Black, anti-Gay, anti-Jew, anti-Catholic and anti-Women's Rights (but for The Family) he finds states such as New York and California almost no-go areas, but playing him you do have the compensation of being able to mutter about pinko faggots when you see the others squabbling over them. It makes you realise why Norman Tebbit always seemed to find politics so much fun.
The board is a map of the States, with dots showing the major conurbations and coloured lines showing domestic air routes. Each conurbation carries a rating between 1 and 9, depending on its size, and these numbers represent the basic number of votes than are to be gained on each visit to the place. This basic number can be modified by a candidate's charisma, by his or her stance on currently live issues, by personal popularity in the region and by the organizational backing that the candidate may have built up in the state. The candidate is represented on board by a piece, which represents himself, and by up to three smaller pieces, which represent his surrogates. Surrogates are to be thought of as wives, celebrities and so on who campaign on his behalf, albeit less effectively than he does himself. In the game, anyone can buy them, and some candidates get them as part of their profile package. On each turn each piece may either remain where it is to raise funds or move to a new city to continue the campaign for votes. Movement is either by paying for a priority flight (anywhere to anywhere) or by rolling a d4 and seeing which standard domestic flights the piece has access to this turn. Even a bad die roll will usually leave you with reasonable choices, and so this movement by die is not a result-determining feature of the game, just an occasional minor irritant when you have to change your plans a little. Each roll of 1 on the die also triggers an event card.
Event cards come in three types. The first declares a special interest group with money on offer to the candidate most to their liking. So, for example, with the American Bankers Association the candidate who scores highest on 1d4 plus his pro-banks rating secures 10 megabucks. The second says that, because of your stance on a particular issue, some event has caused your support to grow or drop in the area you are currently in. The third raises a new live issue. The other way that issues can be raised is by the candidates themselves, each having the right to raise one new issue and to revive one other old one during the course of the game. Issues only remain live for a few turns and can be knocked out of play by the arrival of new ones. So, when one to your taste is dominating the front pages you need to act fast to secure the maximum benefit.
The other elements in your drive for support are advertising, organizations and debates. Advertising buys votes. Organizations cost money but are valuable because they act as multipliers on votes obtained in the states where they are situated. Debates are a matter of a challenge from one candidate to another currently in the same city. 2d4 plus ratings on currently live issues produces a winner and a swing of votes. And that is about it, though there are some minor, and fairly expensive, opportunities for dirty tricks.
As with Candidate, when you reach the counting stage it is unlikely that anyone will already have the required 270, and so again you start dropping the back marker. However, this time when the elimination of a candidate causes a state's votes to be released, they move over to the next most popular candidate in the state. And of course this affects your play during the game: strong positions in states are worth having even if you don't come first - provided of course that the people ahead of you in the state are going to drop out of the overall count before you do. It all makes for a game of fine judgement. It is also one with no golden strategy, since the best plan for you to follow will depend very much on the strengths and weaknesses of your candidate and of his opponents and will need to be continually modified as the campaign develops. All very much like a real primary campaign. My group likes this game a lot. It is a bit on the long side, but we can live with that. More important are that it is fun to play and that for us it has got the luck/skill balance right.
The components of Road to the White House are good, with one exception. The issue cards and the candidate cards are stout and glossy. However, if players are not going to be forever cross-referencing and calculating, what they need is a larger candidate card detailing the effects on a candidate's prospects of a particular issue becoming live. Mayfair have realised this and have produced a booklet with one page for each candidate telling you exactly what you need to know. The booklet can be taken apart, but, if the pages are going to be durable, you will need to get half a dozen transparent A5 size card holders from your local stationers.
There are also some gaps in the rules. Can candidates debate with surrogates? The indication is that they can, but it is such a cheap shot and so out of line with what happens in life that a better answer would be no. When Bob Hope was campaigning for Reagan in 1980 Carter didn't go round challenging him to debates on foreign policy. The rules also fail to give you definitions of 'special interest contributions' and 'business contributions', and this matters because some candidates have multipliers on these. I also question the advisability of giving anybody quadruple anything in the money line: handing one candidate 80 megabucks when his rivals are bumming along seriously unbalances the game. So you will need some house rules here, and it will cause fewer arguments if they are in place before the game starts. But these are all minor matters and easily fixed. The game is a fine one.
There are no problems caused by oversights and rushed production with Candidate. The rules are admirably clear, the board is attractive to look at, the information you need to be on the cards is on the cards, and the die-cutting machine is back in perfect working order. If your requirements from a game are similar to mine, all you need is a better method of determining the winner. Here are two ideas, both as yet untried. First: you could make a note as you go along of the second, third etc in each state and then use Mayfair's procedure once the deadlocked and other undecided states have been resolved. Second: you could drop the option of deciding the deadlocked and undecided states as a block, campaign for them one at a time at the Convention, and declare the winner to be the leader once they have all been allocated. And that is a good place to sign off, with a member of the Electoral Reform Society suggesting that you use first past the post!
On to the review of Footmania or back to the review of Battle Masters.
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